The World Needs Our Universities

Oxford BodleianOur universities in America are the envy of the world. There are a lot of nations making every effort to catch up, China perhaps chief among them, but we remain at the top for access, research, creativity, and productivity. Actually affordability, believe it or not, ranks high too, given our aggressive approaches to financial aid. A healthy society depends on its universities.

How then do we account for the relentless attacks we witness almost daily: new books, new articles, nasty shots by commentators, all touting, sometimes gleefully, the imminent demise of the university?

Well, there is a real fear loose across the land.

There is fear among parents that their sons and daughters will not be able to afford to go to college. There is fear on the part of university leaders that we are bankrupting our institutions by discounting too deeply. There is fear that our universities are stuck in mud of political correctness. There is fear of wastefulness in the system of higher education. There is fear that the sons and daughters of our society are being educated by a protected, isolated, sometimes arrogant class.

All of this needs more nuanced examination, some of it balanced with facts, but there is enough truth here to cause legitimate fear.

So, what needs to be done?

The first step is brutal honesty. The economic model of the university is stretched to limits that are not sustainable. The notion of dramatically increasing prices, over decades, offset by massive discounting for financial aid, will eventually break the budgetary back. We are close. We also must be very cautious about our reliance on federal and state financial aid, because both the feds and the states give clear signals they want out of the business. There are also signals of increasing intrusion on religious freedom.

Here’s my opinion on this first step: While honest cost assessment is vitally necessary, fresh strategies for new revenue are the only viable answer to the broken economic model. I am a big believer that stunning advancement in educational technology is part of the answer. It will take openness on the part of leaders and faculty,  attempts and risks and even failures, but this is one part of the direction forward.

The second step is an aggressive reassessment of the mission of the university. We are dead in the water if we can’t articulate clearly the deeper value of what we have to offer. It’s time to clean out the things that don’t contribute to a clear mission, but we must first define that mission in crystal clear terms. And of course this mission must have the ring of true value to our students and our society. Every university must communicate with compelling power its distinctive value.

One note of caution. There are strong pressures these days to narrow our mission in terms of skills alone—at the moment skills in science, technology, math, computer science, and such. While I agree with some of this emphasis, my bias tilts in broader directions. We cannot focus too narrowly. We cannot, for example, neglect the need for sophisticated writing and reading, nor can we neglect careful reading of the texts that reside in the realms of history, literature, art, philosophy, and theology. These texts are the foundations on which civilization is built. Skills will take us only part way toward a flourishing society.

Finally, it is true that the academy has been captured over time by a secularist agenda. Religion has been airbrushed out of the curriculum of most universities. God has been banished from the quad. In its place we find a new orthodoxy of philosophical materialism, a kind of supposed neutrality that leads to sheer relativism and nasty nihilism. Good grief, with a society coming apart at the seams from the utter neglect of things like religion, family, marriage, hard work, and community, it is time for significant revision of the way we build our curricula. The Christian university can serve as a model here. The secular universities must listen up.

In all of this, two things are critically important: First, we must preserve an allegiance to the best of what has been thought and written throughout the ages; Two, we must keep our eye on the needs of a changing world. The university must seek to contribute to better lives and a better world, but it must do so in light of the ancient paths traveled so far.

Our moment in the grand history of the university requires hard-headed, fast-moving, even radical innovation. If we do this right, the future of the university will exceed even the best we can imagine.

And let us remember: The world needs our universities.